A Queens Ransom

The Mets are in and the Jets are out, but where do the taxpayers fit in?

It's been quite a week, to say the least, for Brian Hatch. The former Salt Lake City official, who has spent the last two years waging a one-website campaign to argue for an Olympic stadium in Queens, has gone from Cassandra to Nostradamus as City Hall's focus has abruptly shifted to a plan that as recently as May 22 Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff was decrying as "impossible."

"I'm ecstatic," says Hatch, who is now considering declaring victory and shutting down his newyorkgames.org site. "It's great news for the city and great news for the bid. Full credit to them—after all the things that they've said the past two years, this was not an easy step to take."

But then, it's been quite a week for turnabouts in general. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who just last week was insisting that a Queens stadium was unworkable because there was no way to pay for it, now enthuses that it would be "one of the most wonderful things, I think, that would ever happen to Queens." Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who had insisted on going halfsies with the public on any new stadium, now says he'll pay construction costs out of his own pocket. And Jets owner Woody Johnson appears ready to suck it up and join the Giants in building new digs in the Jersey swamps.

Parking lot of dreams: Shea Stadium
photo: Cary Conover
Parking lot of dreams: Shea Stadium

Details

Stadium Fiasco:

  • The Hucksters
    The people who tried to sell you the world's most expensive stadium
    By Tom Robbins

  • Stopping a Stadium
    Heroes had different motives, but they shared scorn for the Jets deal
    By Jarrett Murphy
  • How much of this is real, and how much is political posturing to convince the International Olympic Committee not to laugh off New York's bid for the 2012 Summer Games when it meets in Singapore next month? Probably a fair bit of each. When Sheldon Silver signed the death warrant for the mayor's cherished West Side stadium dreams last week, little did he know he'd set in motion a game of stadium whack-a-mole, with two new construction projects popping up to replace the old one.

    This much we know: The mayor and the Mets have hastily dusted off plans for a baseball stadium—price not known, though Wilpon has guesstimated $600 million—in the Shea Stadium parking lot. In 2012, if New York is hosting the Olympics, the Mets would vacate the premises for the Bronx (the Yankees are reportedly set to release their own long-rumored stadium plans this week) while NYC2012, the city, and the state would spend $250 million to upgrade the stadium from 45,000 to 80,000 seats, then transform it back again for baseball.

    So how much of this would land on taxpayers? The mayor's office says public costs would be capped at $180 million for land and infrastructure, with the Mets covering all construction costs, including overruns, as well as operations and maintenance costs of the new stadium. If so, it would obliterate all existing records for the most money ever spent by a baseball team on a stadium—though it's worth noting that the Mets could pass along more than $200 million in costs to their MLB rivals by taking advantage of a new loophole that allows teams to deduct stadium costs from revenue-sharing payments.

    As we've seen with the Jets debacle, however, "infrastructure" can be an awfully flexible term when it comes to stadium finance. A recent study by Rutgers professor Judith Grant Long found that the average pro sports stadium costs the public 40 percent more than the stated price tag—and that figure has risen in recent years, thanks largely to undercounted "land and infrastructure" costs.

    If the Mets plan goes through, says Long, "it's safe to assume that the actual deal, post-approval, will involve public costs far higher than the initial reports."

    The proposed Mets stadium, in fact, contains more than a few echoes of the failed Jets plan. Like the Jets, the Mets would pay no property taxes, but instead make "payments in lieu of taxes"—those infamous PILOTs—that would be used to pay off their own stadium debt. (A similar plan has been proposed for the Yankees, as well as for the Nets arena in Brooklyn.) The team and the mayor's office insist that these are private payments masquerading as public taxes to evade IRS scrutiny; critics insist that paying your taxes and keeping them too amounts to a hidden subsidy.

    And like the mayor's Manhattan plan, his Queens proposal would require the razing and redevelopment of an entire neighborhood, this time the Willets Point light-industrial sector that sits beyond the Shea Stadium parking lot, to make way for an Olympic media center. Bloomberg's office insists that this plan, which has no official price tag, would go forward with or without the Games—but then, that's also what he said about Hudson Yards.

    Meanwhile, there are signs of a full-court press that's building for quick approval of the dual stadium plans. Silver, last week's West Side stadium slayer, has already jumped on board the Queens bandwagon, making a cameo in the mayor's Sunday press release to declare that he "wholeheartedly supports" the Mets plan. And while Queens councilmember Hiram Monserrate, whose district includes Shea Stadium and Willets Point, has expressed concerns about traffic and environmental impacts, it's possible that the City Council could again find itself locked out of the debate. If a state agency such as the Empire State Development Corporation takes control of the project, notes Bettina Damiani of the subsidy-watch group Good Jobs New York, "the state overrides any local land-use policies—which means there will be fewer opportunities for the City Council and local communities to have input."

    Whether all this will do anything to rescue the 2012 Olympic bid is anyone's guess. Hatch, for his part, thinks that it's likely too late for 2012, but that a Queens stadium would make an excellent starting point for a 2016 bid. "From a land-use perspective, you have three stadiums there now: Shea, Louis Armstrong, and Arthur Ashe," he says. "It's got parking, it's got transit—in New York, we're lucky to have that kind of place that can easily accommodate a stadium without much disruption." The IOC, he says, would go for a Flushing Games "in a heartbeat."

    Other Olympic experts are less certain. Rob Livingstone of gamesbids.com says a Manhattan stadium was key to providing a center for the city's "Olympic X" plan that would have scattered venues from the north Bronx to Staten Island: "You look at what Paris and the other bids have to offer, they're pretty compact—and compact is a big buzzword with the IOC." Ed Hula, editor of the Around the Rings Olympic newsletter, disagrees, noting that New York's rivals have each submitted bids with stadiums on the outskirts of town: The Stade de France sits outside Paris city limits in the neighboring town of Saint-Denis, while London and Madrid have proposed new stadiums relatively far from their city centers.

    Regardless of whether they ultimately land in New York, the Olympics have proven once again to serve as an excellent "steamroller," as Anita Beaty of the Atlanta Taskforce for the Homeless dubbed them, to clear the way for massive redevelopment projects. In all likelihood, on July 6 the IOC will announce either Paris or London as the winner, and NYC2012 will need to decide whether to try again four years later with a new numerical suffix. Wilpon and George Steinbrenner, meanwhile, will have in hand agreements with Bloomberg to build the dream homes they've lusted after for years.

    Of course, that and two bucks will get you a ride on the No. 7 train. Just ask Woody Johnson.

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